I have Richard, over at Dances on the Footpath, to thank for this. Several years back, Richard had linked a blog post to a URL from where one could download Balraj Sahni’s autobiography. Since I’m a fan of Mr Sahni’s, I did so, promptly (which was just as well, since sometime later, that link went dead). What with this and that, however, I didn’t get around to reading the book until a week or so back—and then I wished I’d taken the time to read it earlier.
Published, according to various sources, by Hind Pocket Books, this autobiography was originally written in Hindi. This version (it can be read online, here) is in English, so has obviously been translated by someone—I have no idea who. Chronologically speaking, it’s an interestingly placed book, because while it’s obviously been written sometime in the late 60s (Sahni refers to Haqeeqat, which was released in 1964, as already having been made, but mentions Parikshit Sahni, whose first major film was Anokhi Raat, in 1968, as still doing the rounds of the producers, trying to get a role as an adult actor).
What Balraj Sahni actually focuses on in the course of autobiography is not his life as a film star, but his life as child (and later a man) fascinated by films (and by various other, often vastly different) things. He begins with his childhood, as the son of a wealthy businessman in Rawalpindi—where, in the hinterland, Balraj Sahni had his first brush with cinema: Hollywood films (pre Hayes Code!) screened in villages, the films replete with adventure and romance and more, some of which would definitely be X-rated now.
From there, Sahni’s narrative moves on to his days as a schoolboy in Rawalpindi, and the arrival of the first cinema theatre in the city—to which he and fellow schoolboys would go, giving their parents the excuse that these Hollywood films were all based on classic literature, so were a way of expanding their knowledge of Western literature. Which our parents took with a pinch of salt, Sahni admits.
This tinged-with-humour, often self-effacing (even self-deprecating) tone is followed right through the book. Considering he went on to become such a major actor—not just popular, but well-respected and with a dignity that has seen him being lauded by both critics and the aam janta—Balraj Sahni comes across as a man with few illusions about himself. The instances where he talks disparagingly about himself (or, in one memorable place, where he quotes Clare Mendonca—then editor of Filmfare, after whom the Clare Awards were known—as having compared his acting in Badnaam to that of a corpse) are a refreshing change from the more usual self-glorification of the famous.
The autobiography is pretty much about Sahni’s professional life, and that not just in films—to which he came relatively late, with his first major film, Dharti ke Laal, being released in 1946, when Sahni was 33 years old. Before that, he had taught at Shantiniketan, along with his wife Damayanti ‘Dammo’; he and Dammo had also worked at Mahatma Gandhi’s Sevagram; and, for four years during World War II, the couple had worked at the BBC in London.
And then there’s Sahni’s association with communism, and with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which he joined while in Bombay, and which was to go on to be such an important part of his life in the years just after his return to India from the UK. IPTA first made Balraj Sahni a recognizable face onscreen (Dharti ke Laal was an IPTA production).
IPTA also brought him into contact with other like-minded individuals, who were to go on to become familiar names (and in some cases, familiar faces) to cinemagoers. Sahir Ludhianvi and Chetan Anand, among them—and Durga Khote, whose stage debut was in an IPTA play.
Sahni’s belief in communism shines through every now and then as he recounts his work at IPTA and with the Communist Party. He talks about what communism meant in the pre-and post-Partition period, how it should have worked, what it achieved and what it could have achieved. It’s an interesting political thread running through what might have been expected to be a predominantly cinema-centric memoir.
But there’s a lot about cinema in it. Sahni steers clear of gossip about personal lives; in fact, people looking for Sahni’s own personal life might be disappointed. While he does mention how heartbroken he was when Dammo died, the details of how he met and married her—or even his second wife, Tosh—are missing. And, except for a couple of brief anecdotes about his children Parikshit and Shabnam, there’s precious little about them either. There are, however, bits of trivia that have gone down in film lore: how Balraj Sahni met an amusing and very entertaining bus conductor named Badruddin, for example, and got him to act drunk in order to get a role in Navketan’s Baazi—and the immortal screen name of Johnny Walker. Or how, directing a very young Dev Anand in an IPTA play named Zubeida, saying, “Take it from me, you can never become an actor!” (Though Sahni himself clarifies that he has no recollection of having said that).
What fascinated me the most were the little things I didn’t know: how Sahni and Dammo had initially been offered the lead roles in Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar. Or that Balraj Sahni—like David Abraham—was a fan of PG Wodehouse. Or that Balraj Sahni shot his scenes for the film Hulchul (in which he played a jailor) while, ironically enough, being in jail for communist activities—he used to put on his jailor’s uniform every day and be escorted by cops to the set for the shoot.
Or that Noel Corke—the little boy who acted in Taxi Driver (and whom I knew so far only as having been the son of the Anands’ landlord), was also the assistant cameraman in Haqeeqat.
The book comes to an end just after Balraj Sahni’s description of Do Bigha Zameen: there are several interesting behind the scenes anecdotes here. For instance, how a chance encounter with a poor man—who didn’t realize Balraj Sahni in costume as Shambhu was an actor—helped Sahni realize just how he needed to act, what emotions he was supposed to feel. Or how, when a group of poor people realized that this ‘poor man’ was actually an actor pretending to be poor, their sympathy and fellow-feeling for him evaporated instantly.
All in all, an engrossing book. I like Balraj Sahni a lot, and have always thought that he had a certain dignity, a quiet calm about him that endured even through some of the less likeable films of his that I’ve seen. Balraj Sahni: An Autobiography seems to suggest that the man was as dignified, as humble and self-effacing as he appears in some of his best films. Think the family-loving, friendly merchant of Waqt; the impoverished and desperate farmer-turned rickshaw-puller of Do Bigha Zameen. The far-from-home, sad Pathan who befriends a little girl in Kabuliwala… all, it seems, reflect the real Balraj Sahni in some way or the other.
Worth a read if you, like me, are fond of Mr Sahni.